It’s not just our trade that could be hit by a “cliff edge” departure from the EU’s single market and customs union. The risks to our internal security from a cliff edge departure from the EU’s justice and home affairs institutions (such as Europol) and from its legislation (such as the European Arrest Warrant) are probably more immediate and more damaging. The dangers are brought out in the report from the House of Commons’ Brexit Committee, published just before the weekend, as well as reports published by the House of Lords’ EU Select Committee before Christmas.

Without the European Arrest Warrant criminals, including terrorists, who sought refuge in this country without having committed any offence here would be far more difficult for us to return to justice; and such criminals whom we wanted returned to us from other EU countries to face trial here would be similarly more difficult to bring back. Mounting joint investigation teams, combatting human and drug traffickers and cyber crime would all be made more laborious and more problematic. The law enforcement underpinning of the Northern Ireland Good Friday settlement which has enabled these issues to be de-politicised throughout the island of Ireland would be put in jeopardy.

The risks to cooperation in foreign policy and security matters might be less immediate and less dramatic but they would not be less real. Who seriously doubts that, in the Trump era which is about to begin, Europeans, including the UK, will need to work together more closely if their interests are not to be marginalised and overridden? But how is that to be done if Britain finds itself abruptly outside the whole elaborate apparatus for cooperation? 

So what can be done to avoid these cliff edge risks? The first priority is for the government to set out clearly and cogently the reasons why it wants to negotiate a uniquely close external relationship with the EU in these policy areas; and to spell out the mutual benefits to both sides it sees in such a relationship. Then, secondly, as soon as Article 50 is triggered, it needs to give a high priority to turning these broad objectives into reality at the negotiating table. No doubt plenty of difficulties – technical, legal, budgetary, institutional – will arise on both sides; but they should not be insurmountable if there is a will and a common interest in doing so. Of course, it may not prove possible to nail down every detail in the two year span provided for by Article 50, but it will be far easier to agree bridging arrangements to avoid a cliff edge  in 2019 if both sides have a clear picture of where they are aiming to arrive when the full new relationship is complete.   

Is all this going to be easy to achieve? Certainly not. Does it fit neatly into soft, hard or clean Brexit scenarios? Not that either. Is it in the national interest? That was certainly the view of the prime minister in 2014 when, as home secretary, she negotiated the UK’s new involvement in the EU’s justice and home affairs legislation. So why not get on with it? 

by David Hannay | 16.01.2017

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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